10 tips for a more restful 4th trimester slumber

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*as featured on the Thryve blog

As new mothers, we are usually, at least in theory, prepared for the initial weeks of little sleep. Bringing a tiny human into a brand-new world consumes our thoughts, emotions, and activities – day and night. And the wash of blissful hormones and adrenaline often carries us through with calm and acceptance.

But as the weeks drift into months, and the insomniac haze begins to thicken, many of us wonder if there’s truth in the claim that sleep deprivation kills.

Why is everyone so tired?

And it’s no wonder everyone is so tired. A newborn’s stomach can only hold 2-3 ounces of milk at a time and this is quickly digested by baby’s rapid growth and metabolism. Add on the fact that feeds can last for 30-40 minutes at times AND that the sleep system is immature and you have the recipe for short, irregular bouts of sleep and frequent wakings round the clock.

To compound this, there are several internal factors that disrupt a new mother’s natural sleep rhythms, including iron deficiency, hormone changes (downregulation of progesterone and estrogen meets an upregulation of oxytocin and prolactin), altered melatonin release, and increased anxiety. Not to mention the circadian phase shift that results from burning the midnight…and the 2am and the 430am…oil night after night (see here for a more detailed discussion of postpartum sleep disruption).

So it may seem that we simply have to muddle through and accept the walking zombie days as something of a rite of passage to new motherhood.

BUT sleep is a natural and necessary behaviour. And though our bodies make wide concessions for lost zzzzs in the early months with a new baby, it is possible to take some strides to rest a little easier… mom and baby, alike.

Here are 10 safe and science-backed tips (5 for babes and 5 for mamas) that you can do to bring on a more restful fourth trimester slumber:

Babes

1. Be mindful of day/night confusion

It is not uncommon for newborns to exhibit a flip in their days and nights in the early weeks to months. Babies spend 9 months in a dark environment, with little exposure (beyond mom’s activity) to the ebbs and flows of our 24 hour clock.

Newborns also do not produce the sleepy time hormone, melatonin, until approximately 12 weeks of age. Which means, their bodies have trouble internally regulating their sleep/wake cycles according to our daily rhythms. So while sleeping newborn snuggles are the absolute best and it may be tempting to just sit back and watch them sleep through the day – “Never wake a sleeping baby, right?” – one way to curtail the day/night swap is to cap daytime naps at the 2 hour mark. Tickle the toes, use a cool compress, head outdoors – anything to gently rouse your little one. Then enjoy some wide-eyed awake time while your baby takes the world in.

2. Get lots of natural light… and dark

Baby’s brain responds to the contrast between light and dark by releasing melatonin (the oh-so-important sleep hormone). The brightest light comes only from the sun. Get outside and bask in natural light during daylight hours as much as possible. Dim the indoor lights in the evening to signify dusk. And then draw those blackout blinds during sleep to get that nice juicy spike of melatonin that will carry your baby into dreamland.

3. Expose baby to your daily rhythms

In perfect complement to points 1 and 2 above, a sure way to help your baby sync up to our 24 hour clock is to integrate them into the melody of your day. Though baby will sleep on the regular throughout, starting to expose them to the ups and downs of your daily rhythms (eating times, active times, restful times) and creating some consistency in the flow can disentangle those days and nights and consolidate sleep accordingly.  

4. Practice one sleep/day in future sleep space

No doubt newborns find the MOST security right in their favourite spot… your arms! It’s where they long to be and understandably so. Sleep is a vulnerable state and your warmth, touch, and gentle motion helps your baby feel at ease. But eventually (whether in the near future or far down the line) you may hope that they will feel just as secure in their own sleep space. Even small introductions to the space at an early stage can help. Try transferring your baby to their crib or bassinet in your room for just one nap each day. Even if it ends up being a shorter sleep, the early exposure will bring gradual familiarity and comfort.

5. Begin to implement a pre-sleep routine

Routines provide predictability to move through transitions with ease. And there’s no bigger transition that your baby will encounter on a daily basis than shifting from being awake to falling asleep. Implementing a pre-sleep routine and doing so early – the sooner the better – provides that important sequence that helps the brain shut off slowly and comfortably. But for your baby, routines are not deeply rooted yet. They need to be learned. The more you can foster predictability in the routine, the more your baby will anticipate what’s coming next and feel secure in it. Choose something that you will enjoy doing over and over. It’s a special time between you and your baby. Sleep cues can be so strong that, once ingrained, your baby literally starts nodding off as soon as you provide them.

Mums

1. Emphasize your own pre-sleep routine

Do I sound like a broken record? Winding down from your day, keeping things consistent, and sticking to a fairly regular schedule all work to cue your brain that sleep is soon to come. About 30 minutes before climbing into bed, go through the same sequences to prep yourself for a long and restful slumber (even if you know that you will soon be awoken). Have a warm drink, brush your teeth, get into pyjamas, read a book – anything that signals a calm finish to your day. And turn off the electronics in the 1-2 hours before bed. They are highly stimulating for your brain and also emit light (particularly blue light) that disrupts your circadian control centres.

2. Watch out for deficiencies

Particularly iron and magnesium. The iron demands of pregnancy, blood loss (sometimes significant) during delivery, infections that often occur perinatally (endometritis, UTIs, mastitis), and thyroid dysfunction, can all leave new moms in an anemic state.

The sluggish feeling of iron deficiency can all too easily be passed off for “I just haven’t slept well the past few nights” during the early postpartum period. But what it can equate to is a lack of energy to “burn off” during the day and therefore ill-timed build up of sleep debt; or, more frequent naps during the day or an earlier bedtime/wake time, and thus a disruption of your natural circadian rhythm. If you suspect your iron might be low, it might be worth having your levels checked and looking into a supplement – such an easy boost in energy.

Similarly, magnesium has far reaching effects throughout your body, but as far as sleep goes, magnesium helps prepare your body and mind to relax. It also regulates melatonin, that pivotal hormone in your sleep-wake cycles. Magnesium is not directly required to make you fall asleep, but without it, your body and your brain cannot get into the restful state necessary for you to make the transition to sleep. As a bonus, it also appears to improve sleep quality by calming the nervous system.

How to get more magnesium? Eat food rich in the mineral, such as whole wheat, spinach, quinoa, nuts, black beans, edamame, tofu, and sesame seeds. And, of course, you can get magnesium supplements from any local health store.

3. Practice mindful relaxation

Tuning into your body’s natural waves is a way to replace your racing thoughts with a calm and sleep-inducing relaxation. Try Hypnosis – particularly directed at pre- or perinatal women; Yoga nidra – an incredible directed relaxation meditation that helps you to connect with every part of your body to let go of tension and breath into sleep. You can find lots of options online (I personally love this one) – choose the voice you like best!; or other Deep breathing techniques to tap into your parasympathetic nervous system and give you something to focus on if you find it difficult to settle a racing mind.

4. Monitor your sleep hygiene

In addition to emphasizing your pre-sleep routine (as discussed above), some other aspects that contribute to optimal sleep hygiene include:

  • aiming to go to bed at the same time each night – I know, not easy with the unpredictability of a newborn; do your best! – this includes staying up to your regular bedtime even if you’re absolutely bagged. This will help to entrain your circadian rhythm
  • blocking out external lights/sounds that may be disruptive to your sleep. Keep it dark (or wear a sleep mask) and resist scrolling your insta during late night feeding sessions, and turn on a fan or some white noise where needed.
  • manage your consumption of caffeine and alcoholic drinks and resist snacking close to bedtime
  • spend time outdoors and exercise lightly when your body allows

5. Lean into your support networks

This of course means that if you have a partner, a family member, or a really incredible friend that can take your role as prime cuddler for a few hours, take on a bedtime, or manage some of the walk-and-naps take them up on it! Getting a few hours to yourself can really refill the tank (whether you choose to doze for those hours or not).

But more importantly, if you are struggling in these early weeks and months – feeling down, anxious, unable to sleep, groggy, or overwhelmed – NEVER be afraid to seek professional support. Doula. Lactation Consultant. General Practitioner. Public Health. Counsellor. Naturopath. Sleep expert. Whatever it may be. You may not realize that there is a network out there and some tools that can drastically improve your day to day until it’s suddenly right there in front of you. And it can make all the difference in the world.

The biggest take home? You do not have to just grin and bear it, waiting in some foggy, sleep deprived trenches until you can finally get your footing. It’s super hard to be a new mom, at times or all the time, and it’s ok to admit it. Accepting that it’s tough by no means makes you less of a mother to your little one. And a few extra zzzzs can make those waking moments ever so much more sacred.

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